Gardening 101

image introducing Gardening 101 blog post

Gardening has been part of our culture for millenia, and there’s always more to learn. This is the place to start if you’re new to gardening and want to learn how to start a new patch. If you want to dive a little deeper, subscribe to our email series: Gardening 101 Email Series – A Guide for Beginners.

So, you want to create a garden, and you need to know where to start.

image of a person planting seeds in a garden

What space do you have available?

The first question to answer is where can you create your garden? You want to make sure to choose plants that will grow and thrive in that space rather than trying to make the garden work in less than optimal conditions.

So, if you only have shade available, make sure to grow shade loving plants, etc.

What do you want to grow?

Many people choose to start a garden to grow food, and if that is your goal, in most cases you will need full sun, good drainage, and rich loamy soil with plenty of organic content. If you need or want to grow a vegetable or herb garden, and you don’t have the ideal conditions to grow in a regular garden bed, you may need to consider container gardening. Containers offer the advantage of being able to be placed anywhere you have a little space. Even if all you have is an urban balcony, you could still place a container in the sunniest spot and possibly grow some plants.

On the other hand, if your goal is simply to raise a garden, get your hands dirty, and play with plants, then definitely design a garden that works with your existing conditions. Whether you are growing shade plants or specializing in plants that can live in your site’s specific conditions, you can have a lot of fun with it. In fact, accepting the challenge of working with the site’s constraints can often lead to beautiful and inspiring results.

If you’ve never experienced the joy of accomplishing more than you can imagine, plant a garden. – Robert Brault

Site analysis

What is site analysis? It’s just the process of understanding your garden (or site, whatever word you prefer.)

How much room do you have?

I recommend starting small, but you get to define what small means. It can be a group of containers on a balcony or a 4’x8′ garden bed, or whatever size you choose. Sometimes our garden spot is defined for us by site conditions. If a balcony off your apartment is your only outdoor space, that’s pretty well defined for you. However, you may find that you have a side yard, a front yard, and a backyard, and any of them could be options. Don’t forget to examine all of the spaces available to you.

What to look for if you have options

So if you do have options, how do you choose which one to start with? Ultimately, the answer should be based on what end goal you want to achieve. If there is something in particular you want to grow, then you need to understand the needs of that type of plant and choose a site that can meet them. If you don’t have any particular plants in mind, then you can start with the old tried and true wisdom of looking for a flat, good draining site with full sun. Or as close to all of that as you can get.

What kind of soil do you have?

If you don’t know the answer to that question, there are a couple of ways to find out. My recommendation by far is to take a soil sample and send it to a soil testing laboratory. Expect to wait a couple of weeks at least to get your results back. You’ll be rewarded with a very clear report that shows you what your soil type is, along with existing nutrient levels and recommendations on what amendments to add to improve the soil.

For those who decide not to go this route, there are other ways to understand the soil, though the results will be less accurate. First, get your shovel and dig a hole 8″-12″ deep. What does the soil look like? Is it obviously sandy? If so, you have sandy soil, which tends to have very good drainage but relatively poor nutrient levels. Or is it a nice brown soil that breaks apart into small soil particles in your hand when you move it around with your fingers? This is the quintessential garden soil and is called loam. It’s a nice mix of sand, silt, and clay. It may still need some amendments, though. Or does your soil tend to stick together in a lump and not break down into smaller soil bits when you squeeze it? If so, you have clay, which tends to have relatively poor drainage.

Now that you have the broadest understanding of your soil type, let’s look at pH. In general terms, we want to understand if your soil is acidic, neutral, or basic. You should be able to find testing kits at any garden center or hardware store. There are also probes that will attempt to give you a pH reading. None of them are as accurate as a lab test, but they will hopefully get you in the ballpark. Once you know your pH, that will help you choose plants that will be able to thrive in your spot.

It’s also a good idea to test for nutrient levels to know what type of amendments to add. There are also test kits and probes out there to test for nutrient levels, so if you’re out shopping for a pH test kit, grab one for nutrients, as well.

How much sun does your garden spot get?

It’s usually assumed that if your garden is on the north or east side of the house, it will get partial to full shade. If it’s on the south or west side of the house, it will get full sun. Those statements can be true, but they are too general to follow blindly. They don’t account for trees or other buildings. It’s entirely possible for a garden on the south side of your house to be in shade because of a neighbor’s house or a few big trees. It’s also possible that your garden is far enough away from your house to fall outside it’s shadow line. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t affect the amount of sun your garden receives.

Instead of following rules of thumb, spend time in your garden. Get to know it and how it changes throughout the day and throughout the year. If it receives an average of six hours of sun or more per day throughout the year (at least spring, summer, and fall), then you have a full sun garden. If it gets less than that, you have partial shade. If it gets the majority of it’s sun in the afternoon, you’ll want to choose plants that like the hottest sun of the day.

What is your climate like?

The two most important factors here will be your average winter low temperature and your average rainfall. The USDA has used average winter low temperatures to categorize the country into climate zones. The nursery industry lists those zones on plant labels and catalogs to help people know whether a plant can survive the winter in their area. The easiest way to find your USDA zone is to use the interactive map tool they have on their web site.

The other climate factor to understand is how much rain you get. The main reason being, you need to know what plants can live where you are, ideally without a lot of extra watering by you. Or, if you want to grow things that will need a lot of extra watering, you’ll have a clear understanding of what you’re getting into. This one is easy to determine by googling your town name + average rainfall. There are several sites out there that aggregate climate data, like this one, but there are plenty of others to choose from.

What can you do to improve the garden-ability of your site?

Soil amendments

Almost all garden sites will benefit from some sort of amendment, for the simple reason that seasonal cycles are always at work. Organic material breaks down, and water leaches out minerals and nutrients. These need to be replaced regularly, and hopefully in the most natural way possible.

  • Compost: One amendment most gardens can use is compost. As a general rule of thumb, a top dressing of an inch of compost to a garden’s soil is a good idea. There’s no real need to mix it into the soil – the worms and other organisms will mix it in themselves over a relatively short time. That is just a rule of thumb, though. If you get a lab test of your soil, the results will have a recommendation for how much compost to incorporate. A professional lab may refer to it as “organic amendment”. You can get it in bags or in bulk delivery from your local garden center, or if you’re ambitious, you can make your own compost. That’s a long term project, so for now let’s assume you’re buying some for this first garden.
  • Bone meal: If your soil is slightly acidic and you want to bring it closer to neutral, bone meal can help. You have to apply it regularly over the long term, though. It’s a good source of calcium and phosphorous for plants.
  • Soil sulfur: On the opposite end of the spectrum, if your soil is too alkaline, soil sulfur can bring down the pH. The trouble with soil sulfur is that it can burn the roots of plants, so it’s best applied about a month before the garden plot is planted.
  • Organic amendments: There are bagged amendments available from most garden centers that can alter your soil without burning the plants. Most garden centers have a staff member who is knowledgeable about amendments, so it’s a good idea to discuss your needs with them to understand which will be most beneficial for you. 
  • Fertilizer: If your test results (either from the lab or from your DIY tests) showed that the soil was lacking in nutrients, you can add a formulated fertilizer to make up the difference. You’ll usually see three numbers on a package of fertilizer written like #-#-#, and they tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are in the product (in that order).  It’s best to use your soil test results to decide which fertilizer to use, because if you add too much of any of the nutrients, they can leach out into the watershed and cause problems.

How is your drainage?

If water sits too long in your soil, it can cause problems for your garden (unless it’s meant to be a wetland garden or something like that). If you aren’t sure if you have a drainage problem, dig a hole roughly a foot wide and a foot deep in your garden spot, then fill it with water and time how long it takes the water to drain out. If your soil is very dry, fill the hole with water and leave it overnight, then fill it again the next day and measure the time it takes to drain on the second day.

For general gardening purposes, you’re hoping for a drainage rate of 1″-3″ per hour. If you have a drainage rate of less than 1″ per hour, you may need to do something to improve the drainage. One simple way to do that is dig a swale to allow water to surface drain away from the garden.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re garden near the beach and your soil is essentially sand, you may have drainage that’s so fast most plants can’t get enough water. In that case, adding compost will help, but again, you’re best off creating a garden that likes your native conditions, so if you’re gardening in sand, grow plants that like sandy soil.

When drainage isn’t ideal, creating a raised bed can allow you to control your soil conditions and grow whatever plants you want.

Raised Beds

image red with tulips

There are a number of methods to create raised beds. Essentially, you’ll want to get the weeds out of the soil where you want the bed to be. Old school gardeners will double dig the soil and remove every last bit of weedy material (including roots) that they can find. It’s manual labor, so expect to get blisters. And expect to still have weeds at the end of it. Plants are tenacious, and they grow not just from root buds, but also from seeds. The seed bank is what we call the many seeds that fall and stay in the soil but don’t sprout right away. They stay there until the conditions become perfect for them, and then they sprout. For many species, digging up the soil and removing the mature plants that were there before will create those perfect conditions. So if you want to double dig, knock yourself out.

For everyone else, I’d recommend covering the area with a double or triple layer of cardboard and building the bed on top of that. The cardboard will break down over time, but it will take weeks, and that will be long enough to kill many weeds.

There are several ways to actually construct a raised bed. You can stack up rocks or bricks to create the raised sides, or you can build the sides out of wood. The easiest way to do it is to buy steel corners that the wood boards sit down in.

Container Gardening

image of planted containers

Another way to be able to control your soil conditions easily is to use containers instead of growing your garden in the native soil. This is probably the easiest method of all. It can be as simple as going to the garden center, and buying containers and soil and plants.

Some things to keep in mind when choosing containers:

  • Make sure you have space for the container(s) you buy.
  • Choose containers that have enough space for the plants you want to grow. If you want to grow rose bushes or other sizable shrubs in containers, it’s a good idea to go for a 14″ or larger container so the plant will have enough rooting space. Even vegetables and annual flowers need a certain amount of space, so consider what you want to plant when buying your pots.
  • If you live in an area that freezes in the winter, ceramic and clay containers can crack if wet soil is left in them over the winter. I’m not saying not to use those materials, just to be aware that it is a good idea to bring them inside if you can.
  • If you’re looking for containers, you may want to look at moving sales. Often when people move, they don’t have space in the truck for all of their containers and need to leave some behind. You can find nice containers at bargain prices.

Choosing your plants

I don’t know about you, but this is the most fun part to me. I love plants, and choosing what to plant is a bit like Christmas.

image of garden seedlings

What do you want to grow?

You probably had some idea of what you wanted to plant before we even started. That’s probably why you were searching the internet for information on how to start a garden, right? So what do you have in mind? Do you want to plant veggies, flowers, conifers, cactuses? There are tons of possibilities.

Work with your conditions, instead of against them

This is really the best advice I can give you, and it applies to every part of gardening. When you choose your plants, choose ones that can thrive in your garden’s conditions. Otherwise, you will constantly be fighting against nature, and that’s not an easy fight to win.

Sources to find plants that will work for you

The best source is usually a local garden center. Ideally, choose one that is locally owned rather than a chain. Reason being, you are looking for a garden center with knowledgeable employees who can give you good advice on what grows in your area. The big box stores have a set group of plants that they sell, and they don’t necessarily adjust that group of plants to any great degree of accuracy for your area. The employees may be super helpful and know a lot about plants – or they may be filling in from the paint section.

There are tons of excellent books on plants for gardening, and it’s a good idea to get one from the library or the book store. I have a few available in the online store if you’d like to look for one, but I highly recommend you check local bookstores to see if there’s a guide to garden plants specific to your area.

Another great resource is your Cooperative Extension office, along with local gardening clubs. They may even publish their own pamphlets on gardening in your area.

Plants versus seeds

Since we’re talking about a first garden, I’d recommend buying plants from either a local garden center or through mail order, and if you can direct sow the seeds into your garden, that’s another great option. I’d save starting seeds indoors for your next project, after you have a garden space established. Once your ready for that, check out my guide to starting seeds.

Vegetables

If it’s spring time, your garden center will be chock full of seeds and plants for a vegetable garden. Plant labels should tell you how far apart to space the plants to give your plants room to grow. Some popular (and easy to grow) ones to start with are tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and bunching onions. Grow vegetables you know you’ll enjoy using in your cooking, and spend a little time reading up on how to grow them. I’d recommend starting with just a handful of vegetable types so you can get good at growing them and get a good understanding of their needs. The catalog from Johnny’s Selected Seeds is a great resource with lots of information, and they are also a good online source for buying seeds. Lettuce, spinach, carrots, and bunching onions are all vegetables that can grow well from seed sown directly into the garden soil

Flowers

Who doesn’t like to see bright, beautiful flowers? If you’re starting a flower garden, you’ll need to consider what will fit in your designated garden space. Some flowers are small and easily fit in a confined space, like geraniums and pansies. Larger flowers like delphinium need a bigger planting bed. Annual flowers can be direct sown into the garden soil, but for most perennials, it’s probably a good idea to buy plants from the garden center for a first garden project.

Maintenance

You’ve made it through creating your garden. Now it’s time to tend it. Different kinds of plants have different maintenance needs, and part of the fun of gardening is getting to know the individual plants you’ve chosen to grow.

It’s a good idea to consult a good reference book to go deep on those individual needs, but for a general maintenance plan, there are a few things that most gardens need.

  • Watering: One of the main needs all plants has is for water, though the amount required can vary greatly. Keep in mind, it can be just as detrimental to a plant to give too much water as too little. A basic rule of thumb for most garden plants is that they will want roughly 1″ of water per week through the growing season. If you get an inch of rain in a week, there may be no need for supplemental irrigation. The big exception will be container gardens. They have less soil to draw for as a water reservoir, so they will tend to dry out much more quickly unless you’ve mixed water-holding gel capsules into the growing medium. It’s a good idea to watch your garden carefully at first, every day if possible, to see how often you need to water it. For many plants, it’s best to let the soil dry out before watering and then water the soil deeply. The warning sign to look for in most plants is wilting. If the plant is wilting, it needs water immediately.
  • Weeding: If a plant is competing with your garden plants for water, space, and other resources, you’ll want to pull it. Otherwise, weeds can take over the garden and possibly even kill your plants. Since you’ll be checking your garden daily for water needs, it will be easy to look for small weeds starting and go ahead and pull them. The quicker you can catch them, the less chance they will have of gaining a foothold and causing problems for your plants.
  • Mulching/Feeding: For most gardens in temperate zones, one yearly topdressing of compost and mulch will be enough to keep the garden in good shape. Additional fertilizer and amendments will depend on the site’s soil conditions and the needs of the plants you chose. It’s a good idea to start with the recommendations from your soil test, which should include recommendations for ongoing maintenance fertilization if needed. If you used over the counter kits to decide which fertilizer to use at planting, it’s a good idea to retest the soil a couple months after planting to see where the nutrient levels and pH stand.
  • Pruning: Not all plants need pruning. We usually use the term pruning for woody plants, so it usually needs to be done for shrubs and trees (roses spring to mind as a good example). Pruning is an important skill, and it’s worth attending a local class or studying a good reference book to learn what your chosen plants need.
  • Deadheading: Many flowering plants will rebloom if spent flowers are kept trimmed. It’s true for roses, geraniums, and many others. It seems to be an evolutionary response to ensure reproduction. Once the flowers die and seeds are produced, the plant’s reproductive cycle can come to an end for the season. Deadheading interrupts that process and keeps seeds from being produced so the plant has to keep producing more flowers in order to ensure seed production.
  • Cutting back: Some plants will look best if they are cut back at a certain point in the year. For flowering bulbs, it’s best to wait until the leaves turn brown. For many ornamental grasses, late winter is a good time to cut them back. This is another area where you’ll want to get to know your chosen plants well and tailor your approach to them.

I hope this has given you lots of information to start your first garden! Make sure to take a picture of your garden and post it to Facebook or Instagram with #firstgarden. And let me know if you have any questions I didn’t cover.

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